Shades of scarlet streak through the sky, streaming hot pink threads through the sapphire blue, a fire-breathing circus through which I steer the car. All six-feet-four inches of my lanky, basketball-playing, artistic son, crammed into the passenger seat of my tiny Prius C, urge, “Look! Look! Look at the sunset!”
Where to focus? So many choices: the smooshed fly’s bloodied guts splayed on the windshield, the dented Mercedes speeding five feet ahead, the roaring horizon. Instead, I glance at my 28-year-old, my beautiful, eldest son. He looks like a giraffe stuffed into a cage too short for a giraffe.
I have brought him back home to our little New England town because he is sick. Because one minute he set a plate of bison carpaccio in front of a customer in the Brooklyn restaurant where he worked, and the next he collapsed, his towering frame crumpling to the floor in the skinny hallway leading to the kitchen. We are on our way to a clinic in Hartford, because he tells me he has actually been ill for months, weak, headachy, dizzy.
One day, some years ago, when he is visiting from college, he parks at the counter. His mass makes me minuscule. We chat. He gets up and runs into the bathroom. I hear the water running. He returns, gets up again, runs to the bathroom; again the water runs, and he returns. He does this five times—I am counting now—and I cannot tell if he is sweating or dripping from faucet water. “Are you all right?” I ask.
“I’m gay,” he says.
“Ok, that’s fine. Is that why you keep splashing water on your face?”
“I was nervous.”
I struggle to conceal my dismay. Haven’t I been loving enough, accepting enough? Why would you be nervous about telling me that? I’m your mother; I love you.
Later, counselors tell me every child is nervous, coming out to their mothers. That’s ok. It’s not about me.
After college, he moves to Brooklyn and tells me almost nothing. I think, this is the way of the mother. Know little, hope much. Pray. He tells me what he wants to tell me. I follow him on Instagram, I follow him on Facebook, I try to deduce his life from dribs and drabs of social media. I visit him wherever he lives, and paint walls, buy furniture for him from tag sales and Craigslist and street corners. I feed him in restaurants. I stock his refrigerator.
He lives with a woman who is transitioning to male, in a nice apartment in Ridgewood, Queens, with a bedroom on the street, a bedroom in the back, a kitchen and living room in between. Perfect.
He moves anyway.
He lives with a drag queen in an apartment configured such that he can only access the shower by walking out his bedroom door and down a public hallway, then going back through his front door to reach the bathroom. He moves again. He sleeps on friends’ sofas.
He never stays anywhere for long.
I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about Rupert Everett, a Shakespearean actor who is gay, and who worked for years as a prostitute. My son laughs when I tell him this.
“I’ve thought about it,” he says. “When I’ve been really broke.”
I do not want my son to work as a prostitute.
What does a mother want for her children? Stability. Independence. Love.
The day he falls ill, he calls me from where he is staying in Brooklyn. “I collapsed at work last night,” he says. “I’m sick.”
I tell my older sister.
“Is it AIDS?” she asks.
“No, no,” I say.
But I don’t know.
Now, driving to the clinic, we clank through the pockmarked streets of Hartford, navigating the double-parked, disintegrating box trucks, squinting at signs that yell “NO PARKING” or “PARKING ONLY BETWEEN 9 A.M. AND 10 A.M. TUESDAYS AND THURSDAYS” and “PARKING MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY AFTER 6 P.M.” I find what looks to be a spot, park, and say a prayer that my car will be there when we return.
We are outside a four-story brick building on a tree-lined street. Three-story houses line the neighborhood, fronted by wobbly porches whose worn wooden supports whisper of a wounded past. A chain-link fence, scores of links compromised or broken, leans into the brick building, our brick building, our destination. We walk in.
Staff members hurry to and fro, bustling in and out of the waiting room, from one door to another and back. Amid all this activity, I sit and wait. My son enters a door, and exits 45 minutes later, awash in acronyms. No AIDS. No HIV. No STDs.
“What is wrong with me?” he asks. “I have headaches. I’m exhausted all the time. I can’t move my muscles.” His eyes fill. The tears of a towering angel.
I make an appointment with an infectious disease doctor, leaving a long message with his receptionist, telling her I am caring for my son, detailing his despondence. A day before the appointment, as I am driving to the grocery store, I get a call from the doctor. “Why is he coming in?” he asks.
“He needs someone on his side,” I say. “Someone in the medical community who knows his name.”
The sun is ablaze again as it sets on the horizon, against a canvas of clouds like barges lazing in the sky. I am talking to my Prius’s Bluetooth, focusing on the show above the highway.
I don’t tell the doctor that sometimes my son doesn’t call people back, sometimes doesn’t show up on time, or show up at all.
“Does he use crystal meth?” the doctor asks. “Many men in the New York gay community use crystal meth.” And as I crumble inside, praying to my absent son, ‘Please don’t be using crystal meth,’ I tell the doctor, “I’m not one of those mothers who boasts that my children tell me everything. As a matter of fact, I’m one of those mothers who assume my children tell me almost nothing. There’s so much to know. Don’t you find that?”
There is silence on the phone. The doctor tells me that he lives with his husband and their dog in West Hartford. He is not actually a parent, himself.
How can he understand what I’m feeling? But then, I need him to understand my son’s condition, not my own confusion.
Several days later, my son walks out of the doctor’s office. “I have Epstein-Barr syndrome,” he announces. “And mono.”
I take him home, put him to bed, feed him. I spend hours making soup from scratch—simple chicken broth, Jane Brody’s cream of carrot, Joan Nathan’s matzo ball. I steam vegetables, concoct elaborate salads of Boston lettuce, baby greens, radicchio, steamed sweet potatoes, chopped walnuts, pumpkin seeds. I grill chicken and fish. He eats everything. He hugs me. Sometimes he smiles.
He gets a little better. Weeks pass. He struggles out of bed one day and borrows a car to see his father, who lives in the same town. When he returns, I tell him, “I cleaned out the closet in your room, so you’d have more space for your clothing.”
“It’s a guest room,” he answers. “It’s not my room. I am NOT staying here.”
I think about what my mother-in-law always said, when my children made a remark to me that I deemed hurtful: “They are in much more pain than you are, Jane. They are in much more pain than you.”
I tell him I love him.
What do I want for this child, for any of my children, when they are wounded? I rearrange my expectations, then toss them away entirely. I feed, and clothe, and house, and reassure, and suggest, and try to stay quiet; and instead I talk more. I worry and worry and worry. I pray.
I look at my suffering son, whose eye celebrates the crackling contrast of burnt-orange tangerines in green Depression-glass bowls, who believes the scourge of parasitic bittersweet invading my yard to be a smorgasbord of lush greens, who feasts on the egg-yolk flicker of the gods in a sunrise. “What is to give light must endure burning,” said the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl.
There he is, a parched petal in the sun’s penetrating rays, a crumbling rose, a winter’s gray garden, and I tell myself that in the spring, when the sleep-caked skies flush muskmelon and robin’s egg blue, when the whippoorwill whistles in the dusk and the tall grasses whoosh in the wind, he will bloom again.
In the warmth of the rising sun, he will bloom.